On the Riverfront: St. Louis and the Gateway Arch on view Jan. 30 to March 9

Exhibition and symposium presented by Sam Fox School in conjunction with Eero Saarinen retrospective

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial — popularly known as the St. Louis Gateway Arch — is the tallest monument in the United States and an icon of modern architecture, its great stainless steel arc embodying strength, elegance and simplicity. Yet creation of the Arch was anything but simple. Indeed, it is a story of frequent uncertainty and sometime bitter controversy, as planning, design and construction stretched across more than three decades.

From Jan. 30 to March 9 the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis will explore that history with an exhibition and symposium titled On the Riverfront: St. Louis and The Gateway Arch. Curated by Peter MacKeith, associate dean of the Sam Fox School and associate professor of architecture; and by Eric Mumford, associate professor of architecture, On the Riverfront will profile the people, events and conditions that culminated in the 1947-48 competition from which Eero Saarinen’s design was chosen, as well as the monument’s subsequent construction and its place in American architecture.

First Stage Competition entry, 1947
Eero Saarinen, with J. Henderson Barr (renderer), Dan Kiley (landscape architect), Alexander Hayden Girard, and Lilly Swann Saarinen. Detail from Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, First Stage Competition entry, 1947. Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Archives, National Park Service.

“The significance of the Gateway Arch in Saarinen’s career, as well as in the development of St. Louis’ post-war identity, is unquestionable,” says MacKeith, who also serves as St. Louis coordinator for Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. (That exhibition — the first major museum retrospective dedicated to the architect — will be on view at the university’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum Jan. 30 to April 27.)

“There is a degree of attention given to the Arch within the retrospective,” MacKeith explains. “But the Arch is such an icon of St. Louis, condensing histories of place and purpose and civic pride, that we felt this would be a good opportunity to explore the broad civic vision that ultimately brought the Arch into being. It is a not a story of which people are really aware.”

On the Riverfront begins with a condensed history of the St. Louis region, from the time of the Cahokia Indians, though Spanish settlement, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark expedition, to statehood and industrialization. Yet by the early 20th century much of the riverfront had fallen into disrepair and local leaders were beginning to explore strategies for revitalization.

Chief among these was Luther Ely Smith, a St. Louis lawyer now known as “the father of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.” Smith first conceived the idea of constructing a memorial on the banks of the Mississippi in 1933 and the following year, with the help of Mayor Bernard Dickmann, co-founded the nonprofit Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM) Association to enlist Federal support. In 1935 Franklin Roosevelt designated the proposed 90-acre site as a national park and the city, having passed a bond proposal and armed with the power of eminent domain, began leveling 40 blocks in preparation for a national architecture competition.

The site was cleared by 1942 but the JNEM Competition was delayed by the onset of World War II. Yet when it did begin, in 1947, the competition proved a massive success, drawing 176 entries — many of which will be on view — by important St. Louis figures such as Harris Armstrong, Charles Eames and Gyo Obata, as well as by international modernists such as Louis Kahn, Isamu Noguchi and Eliel Saarinen, Eero’s father. (Famously, when jurors announced the five finalists, a telegram was sent to “E. Saarinen,” and for a few hours the family mistakenly assumed that Eliel had advanced.)

“These are all visions of what the riverfront could have looked like if any other entry had been chosen,” MacKeith points out. “In many ways they provide a snapshot of post-war architectural concerns. The issue of the day was what we now call the ‘new monumentality.’ How do you make architecture after the Second World War? How does one memorialize anything after the holocaust, or in the shadow of nuclear warfare?”

The final section highlights Eero Saarinen’s winning design, a gracefully inverted catenary arch — calculated with the help of structural engineer Hannskarl Bandel — that bears little resemblance to pre-war memorials. Also on view are a number of Saarinen’s subsequent drawings and models, which chart subtle changes and modifications in the years leading up to construction (which, delayed by the Korean War, did not begin until 1963.) For example, while the original proposal called for a structure 590 feet tall and located on the banks of the Mississippi, the final plan was lengthened to 630 feet and moved to slightly higher ground.

“This is a city of great beauty, which approached its riverfront with great purpose and deliberation,” MacKeith concludes. “Yes, there are tangled and difficult histories prior to 1947, and subsequent to the Arch’s completion. But there was also this astonishing moment of the competition. It’s a moment that seemed to encapsulate St. Louis’ past and present, and one that remains intertwined with our civic future.”


In conjunction with the exhibition On the Riverfront, the Sam Fox School will host a daylong symposium of the same title beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 31. Topics of discussion will include “The River and St. Louis,” “The JNEM Competition and the Design of the Gateway Arch,” “The Era of the Arch” and “The Riverfront and the Arch.”

Participants will include Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, chief researcher and co-editor of the exhibition catalog for Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future; architect Robert Burley, who led the Arch design team for Eero Saarinen and Associates; and Charles Birnbaum, founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation and former coordinator of the National Park Service Historic Landscape Initiative. Also participating will be landscape architect Susan Saarinen (Eero’s daughter) and former Finnish ambassador Matti Häkkänen (Eero’s second cousin), as well as architects, historians, critics and scholars from St. Louis and abroad.

Formal proceedings will be published and distributed following the symposium. For participant bios and a complete schedule of events, click here.

On the Riverfront: The Gateway Arch and St. Louis will open from 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 30 and will remain on view through March 9 in the Sam Fox School’s Steinberg Hall, located near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. The gallery is open during regular business hours Monday through Friday. For more information, call (314) 935-9300 or visit samfoxschool.wustl.edu.

Support for On the Riverfront is provided by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.


WHAT: On the Riverfront: St. Louis and The Gateway Arch

WHEN: Exhibition: Opening reception 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30; on view through March 9. Symposium: 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31.

WHERE: Steinberg Hall, near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards.

COST: Free and open to the public

SPONSOR: Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

INFORMATION: (314) 935-9300 or samfoxschool.wustl.edu